Fair trade, Fair immigration?

The Global Forum on Migration and Development is an example of global civil society activism, and was seen by many as the holy grail of a progressive approach to immigration. Is it really the way forward?

Don Flynn
12 January 2011

The policy areas of immigration management and international development have become a lot more intertwined in recent years.  They now appear on the agendas of a whole range of organisations, from the World Bank, the European Union, and through to development NGOs and organisations like Migrant Forum Asia which advocate for the interests of a network of migrant support groups operating across the Asian continent.

Bringing together migration management and international development into a single policy has looked like the holy grail of a progressive approach for many people concerned with these issues.  Being able to displace the state-centric positions of the developed migrant destination countries from their dominant position would link, it was hoped, the unpopular business of controlling the movement of people and the policing of borders to the more positively viewed issue of tackling global poverty, and open out the space for the entrenchment of forward-looking cosmopolitan viewpoints in the public policy conversation. 

The vehicle for performing this piece of surgery on the two policy areas, has, for all those interested in the project, been the UN-sponsored Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). Inaugurated in Brussels in 2006, the Forum has now met four times: most recently in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta in November last year. Its fifth session will convene in Switzerland sometime in the next six months.

Emerging from an initiative taken by the then general-secretary of the UN, Kofi Annan, to establish a Global Commission on International Migration back in 2003, the project was driven by a conviction amongst many of the actors in the international institutions that immigration policy was in a dead-end, with national governments locked into a negative logic of self-interested action based on the defence of their national borders.  In an epoch driven by the expansion of the global economy the effect of excessively restrictive immigration policies has been similar to protectionist approaches on the part of the leading national economies to trade.  Breaking this down, and arguing for fair immigration policies in the same way that the development lobby argues for fair trade, seemed to be a useful direction to seek to take the policy discussion.

In some ways the emergence of the GFMD can be taken as a case study of global civil society activism, in which the concerns of policy activists cross over with items on the agenda of international institutions, and with various fortuitous events allowing the matter to be inflated to semi-institutional status. The route taken during the course of this conversation rapidly fills out with state-of-art research and conceptual analysis, allowing for a space to develop for a more progressive narrative on the issue of migration, which could, if all goes well, moves the discussion beyond the brick wall of national state intransigence.

The structure of GFMD has reflected the multi-stranded engagement of a wide variety of interests with migration and development. For example, the World Bank is a prominent influence, acting in its role as the monitor of money flows across the globe and is a major contributor of policy perspectives to GFMD discussions. The $300 billion plus annually remitted by migrant workers to their countries of origin represents a transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries twice the size of that provided by official overseas development aid and, according to the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011, is almost the equal of the total amount available to developing countries from foreign direct investment.

Add to this the burgeoning list of university, think-tank and NGO policy researchers involved in migration studies and development, trade union federations concerned with the protection of workers’ rights, employers groups concerned to protect their interests, and the myriad networks of migrant support groups operating across five continents, and the GFMD table has emerged as a cacophony of different, sometimes conflicting voices.

To try and manage the process the GFMD has developed a two-level structure across its four annual meetings, with the official intergovernmental meeting being augmented by a set of ‘civil society days (CSD)’. The CSD  bring together several hundred selected representatives of the diverse range of interests clustered around the immigration debate. Organising their discussions through a series of thematic roundtables, the CSD then works to present a list of its concerns and recommended courses of action to the intergovernmental representatives meeting separately.

Critics of this approach point out that the business of agreeing a joint civil society approach requires compromises and the brokering of deals between a diverse set of actors even before their agreed position goes onto the table to be considered by the representative of national governments.  The representatives of migrant networks  – under the GFMD system merely one segment amongst the civil society interests –  felt particularly sensitive to marginalisation through this process, on the grounds that they represent the viewpoints of the people actually doing the migrating.

To deal with this problem a third component of the GFMD structure has emerged across the four years of its meetings, which has now been formalised as the Peoples Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights (PGA). The PGA has organised its own parallel events at each of the GFMD sessions so far, bringing together hundreds of representatives of migrant organisations for their own version of debates and discussions about the direction they wish international migration policy to move in.

For the PGA network the central issue has been the rights of migrants themselves as they negotiate their ways across national frontiers, into positions in the global labour markets, protect themselves against discrimination, maintain the integrity of their family lives, and retain control over the ways in which their remittances are spent. PGA activists have urged the GFMD to advocate in favour of the global application of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (the ‘Migrant Workers Convention’) which is currently supported by only 59 countries out of the total of 192 affiliated to the UN.

The PGA remains committed to the GFMD process and making it work as a meeting point between the various groups and institutions which seek to influence immigration policy across the world.  But the sheer diversity of interests involved in the discussions it promotes, extending from the wealthy states of the global North, the sending countries of the South, the international agencies and institutions, NGOs representing the vast range of development and human rights concerns, academic researchers and policy advocates, trades unions and employers, all serve to draw attention to its major critical weakness as a project capable of bringing about change. 

That weakness flows from the fact that the GFMD still lacks a defining, authoritative narrative on the role which migration plays in modern global economic and political relations which in turn is capable of ascribing rights and responsibilities to key interests and stakeholders. The diplomatic ethos of its UN sponsor means that its work is biased towards the appeasement of vested interests, rather than challenging them.  Moving beyond the good intentions of its past four years of work will require building a stronger capacity for critical assessment and challenge to these interests, and this will mean a sustainable programme of work across each year which isn’t focused so heavily on the annual forum.  The forthcoming fifth, forum meeting in Switzerland this year will provide the best indicator yet as to whether the project has the legs to take vital discussion further.

The GFMD meets in Switzerland later this year. A second article by Don Flynn analysing the issues likely to be on the agenda, will be published on openDemocracy in February .






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